Plein Air

 

Galleries along street in Paducah's LowerTown

Colorful studios and galleries line the streets of LowerTown, Paducah’s oldest residential neighborhood and center of its cultural rebirth.
Photo courtesy Paducah Visitors Bureau.

We are a nation of movers. Even though our mobility reached a record low between 2010 and 2011, and even though most Americans were still living in the state where they were born, last year 6.7 million people packed up their lives and moved to a new state, with hopes of a reality that would be better. Within that huge dispersion were a few who’d been recruited by an economic development strategy intended to revitalize bleak downtowns and blighted neighborhoods: the artist relocation program.

For decades, communities have employed a palette of private and public options to leverage investments in local creativity. Painters and potters and other studio artists have been gathered into live/work areas through artist space development programs. Large and small cities alike have concentrated the energy of visual artists, musicians, and actors within arts and entertainment districts. And while urban planners have long known that the creation of arts tourism can energize a local economy, it was not until the Paducah project that an influx of artists could be seen as change artists—desirable homesteaders, property-owners who could be lured into leaving one place to substantially improve another.

In March 2000, the aging river town of Paducah, Kentucky—known for flooding, dogwood, uranium enrichment, and quilts—entered into a grand experiment. In what planners and the National Endowment for the Arts call “creative placemaking,” Paducah began the transformation of its blighted, crime-ridden Lower Town neighborhood through an infill of creativity. Led by painter and printmaker Mark Barone, the city began an artist relocation program, fueled by a seductive package of incentives grounded in zoning and the easy acquisition and rehab of Lower Town’s historic, dilapidated buildings.

Artists left behind lives in Alabama, California, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, and elsewhere to rehab Lower Town’s shabby Victorian homes and to open galleries and attract collateral development, trendy restaurants, and lodging.

In the 12 years that followed, the model of Paducah’s artist relocation program has been adopted by other struggling communities hoping to revitalize their economies and replace decline with creative clusters. Oil City and Johnstownbeckon artists to Pennsylvania. Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Covington, Kentucky, and Racine, Wisconsin offer incentives to artists willing to move to their small cities, purchase properties, and put down real roots. And in Cumberland, Maryland, the incentive pot has been sweetened by the support of an arts council that has become expert in creative placemaking.

The place that Cumberland occupies in my memory was made long ago, during its downtown retail heyday. To better understand how it might attract creative newcomers today, I had the opportunity to speak to four of its first wave arts ex-pats, an artist who is passing through but enjoying the moment, and an artist who is going through the deliberative and sometimes difficult process of relocation.
  

The Cumberland, Maryland, skyline in autumn.

The Cumberland, Maryland, skyline in autumn.
Photo courtesy the City of Cumberland.

Cumberland, Maryland lies between rounded Appalachian Mountains along the Potomac, 30 miles south of my hometown. When I was a kid, its downtown was the place my mother bought Lilli Ann suits (at Peskins), we’d shop for winter coats (at Rosenbaum’s), and we’d have sandwiches (in Lazarus’ tea room after buying my back-to-school clothes). In the 1960s, downtown Cumberland, with its well-appointed department stores, was thriving, and it was impossible to imagine a time when those grand stores would not exist.

Rosenbaum Brothers’ Department Store closed its doors in 1971, after 122 years of retail in Cumberland. Peskins and Lazarus held out longer, but eventually, the three once-grand department stores were shuttered.

Looking back, an artist relocation program almost seems inevitable. If empty, affordable commercial real estate, a sophisticated arts council, western Maryland’s natural beauty, an easy quality of life, and proximity to Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore could attract Andy Vick and Beth Piver, there was a good chance that other artists might share their vision of a different life. Others might want to leave congested, high-priced cites and become artist settlers like the D.C. couple who’d arrived in 1998 and begun their live/work life in a 6,000-square-foot, two-story downtown loft space.

Vick and Piver were pioneers in a movement that quickly gained momentum, and Andy Vick’s marketing expertise played an important role in attracting other artists. In 2001, Maryland enacted legislation to establish arts and entertainment districts, and the City of Cumberland and the Allegany Arts Council jumped at the opportunity to capitalize on that revitalization strategy. In 2002, downtown Cumberland received its official A&E district designation. In 2003, Andy Vick became the executive director of the Allegany Arts Council.

Tax credits, freezes, exemptions and subtractions, loans, access to venture capital, and assistance with permitting and infrastructure—all beckoned the first wave of incoming artists.

Among the first were David and Meg Romero, who in 2002 were living in Allentown, Pennsylvania and ready to effect a mid-course correction. Meg was making furniture in a home studio and Dave was dreaming of trading in electrical engineering for what he’d come to love more than the semi-conductor industry: the visual design world of photography, videography, and web design. They saw a quarter page ad in The Crafts Report and decided to explore the place that Andy Vick was sold on and now selling to others.

Vibrant Image, David Romero's studio as it looks today.

Vibrant Image, David Romero’s studio as it looks today.
Photo by David Romero, VibrantImage.com

After multiple trips to Maryland and careful alternatives analysis, the Romeros moved from Allentown to Cumberland, where they bought a 12,000-square-foot potential live/work space: the former four-story Lazarus Department Store on Baltimore Street. They had a vision: Meg would have an entire floor of former retail space for Meg Romero Studio; Dave would have another for Vibrant Image, and the couple could live on the top floor. The first floor would continue to house a commercial tenant.

As the Romeros took their top three floors down to the bones, the building gave up clues to its past, and provided the couple with present-day connections to the community. They found remnants of the pre- department store era, when the building was home to the James Clark Distillery, but their best find was in the attic: a dusty mirror etched with the names of 135 wartime brides, married between 1939 and 1945, young women who had purchased their wedding gowns at Lazarus.

In 2008, Meg Romero organized a Veterans Day event in the second floor space that once contained the bridal salon, which had become her spacious studio. The event gathered women who had signed that mirror, who shared their experience of being war brides and were treated to wedding cake and a display of World War II vintage gowns, purchased from Lazarus by some of the brides.

Today Meg Romero describes her completed studio as “3,000 square feet of wonder and excitement”—a space that’s 30 feet wide and a hundred feet long, with huge windows at each end. It’s a space that includes a full woodshop, a design library, dedicated work areas for upholstery and painting and trimming, a finishing room, and room to pack furniture securely for shipping around the country. She loves their downtown live/work life in the city that attracted them away from Allentown, loves her two-floor commute to work and watching tourists on the street below while she works. Listening to her describe her post-relocation quality of life in Cumberland, I am sold on its potential.

 

The former Lazarus Department Store on Cumberland's Baltimore Street (second floor) — before David and Meg  Romero renovated it.

The former Lazarus Department Store on Cumberland’s Baltimore Street (second floor) — before David and Meg Romero renovated it.
Photo by David Romero, VibrantImage.com.

Mary Kollman is also enjoying downtown life in her Liberty Street loft, an apartment carved out of another historic building that more recently housed a hardware store. Kollman and husband Jeff Laird arrived in Cumberland in February 2011 from New Mexico, another inland voyage in the odyssey they began when they leased their Grand Junction, Colorado home to a friend and began following Laird’s work as a consulting geologist. His current project, a two-year expansion of CSX tunnels in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, made their temporary headquarters in Cumberland both a reasonable and serendipitous decision.

Mary is primarily a “big sky” painter, whose work features saturated warm colors and desert terrain, paintings she continues to sell through galleries in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. While at first it seems that she is painting for a very distant regional market, her short stay in western Maryland has influenced her newer pieces. Her friendship with Cumberland artist Patricia Timbrook, whose family owns local auto dealerships, has allowed her to experiment with a new medium: auto paint. She likes the results she gets with the rich enamels, working them into large abstract formats that seem a world away from the roof of a Kia, the side panel of a Chevy, the hood of a Nissan.

Mary and her husband plan to stay in Cumberland for another year. But even when they’ve moved on, the East Coast land and seascapes that have found their way into her consciousness may travel with her. She may continue to paint the haunting rocky outcropping in the Cumberland Narrows, known as Lover’s Leap. She may continue to work with car paints, layering bright enamels, allowing them to surprise her.

 

Furnituremaker Meg Romero with her artful cabinets,  award-winning Rupert and his sidekick Roxy.

Furnituremaker Meg Romero with her artful cabinets, award-winning Rupert and his sidekick Roxy.
Photo by David Romero, VibrantImage.com

Arnold d’Epagnier will be moving to Cumberland around the time that Mary Kollman leaves. After years of relocation research, which included trips to Cumberland and New Mexico, and encouragement from the Romeros and Andy Vick, the Colesville, Maryland furniture designer and craftsman made his decision in the fall of 2011. He bought a building in Cumberland and began the arduous transitional phase of living and working 125 miles away from the rehab project required for the transfer of his business, Mission Evolution, to new quarters.

There were a number of factors that affected his selection of Cumberland: its proximity to cities where he does commission work, small-town feel, mountain setting, interesting architecture. But Arnold says that his search for the right place always brought him back to the city’s most compelling asset: the Allegany Arts Council, respected locally and across Maryland, effective and established and able to help him succeed in a new location.

The heavy lifting that will be required to transplant Mission Evolution goes beyond equipment and inventory. Juicy incentives that were available a decade ago have been depleted. Grants have been replaced by loans, and real estate prices have risen. Arnold d’Epagnier’s intrastate move is being fueled by a vision of his life evolving as it was meant to, of obstacles falling away, and of being part of an engaging artist community.

By 2013, he thinks, the mixed-use building that has morphed from auto body shop into carpet store will again be transformed to produce and showcase his elegantly crafted works of curly cherry, white oak, ebony, English walnut, sycamore, satinwood, holly, makore, mahogany, yellowheart—with their unexpected marquetry and lines inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau period of the early 1900s.

 

I understand the attraction, the idea that out there is a place that will feel right, will inspire, will allow you to be among the like-minded. Not a Utopian community, nothing that romantic or quirky, but a place where you’ll contribute to the common good, where your contribution is valued, and you’ll have a decent shot at having the life you want. A place that offers a paint box of quality-of-life benefits: affordable real estate, good medical care, easy commutes, a landscape that speaks to you. With or without tax breaks and grants, desert or mountains, we are drawn to the idea of a welcoming place where people want you to join them, to come into their world, add a little color, make it yours.

Maybe we find it in The Crafts Report, or when we pull off the interstate for a better look at brilliant maples, but the attraction grows. We go back, meet people, ask questions. We look at properties and imagine waking up in one of them, envision the morning light and the view that would greet us. We pack our tools and, in good faith, make our move.

 

 


Deborah Fries works in multiple genres—including poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Her poems and poetry reviews have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Cream City Review, North American Review, Cimmaron Review, Valparaiso Review, and Terrain.org, where she has been a contributor since 2000. Her first book of poetry, Various Modes of Departure, was published in 2004 by Kore Press, Tucson. Her second book, A Field Guide to Temporal Habitat, will also be published by Kore. She is the editor of the online publication, New Purlieu Review.

Photo of front porch by Iriana Shiyan, courtesy Shutterstock.

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